As technology evolves, robots are beginning to get smaller and smaller. But now, researchers from Harvard have given microscopic robots a twist — they’re making them out of DNA.

Using a technique dubbed “DNA origami,” the researchers “fold” the DNA strands into shapes that can carry cancer-fighting drugs.

Dr. Shawn Douglas, a technology fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Wyss Institute who helped lead the project, said that these nanostructures, formed from a hybrid of DNA, antibodies and metal atomic clusters, can break new ground in the fight against deadly diseases.

“We can finally integrate sensing and logical computing functions via complex, yet predictable, nanostructures,” Douglas said in an email to InnovationNewsDaily. He said the robots are “aimed at useful, very specific targeting of human cancers and T-cells.”

It’s a project that Douglas and his research partner, Ido Bachelet, another postdoctoral fellow at Wyss Institute, have been developing for about a year now. The prototype, a hexagon-shaped nanorobot, is designed to deliver drugs throughout a patient’s body. But Douglas told INO that getting the armed bots to fold into the right configuration proved a challenge at first.

“We ended up solving this using some ‘guide’ strands of DNA that are present during the self-assembly reaction to encourage the device to close,” he said.

The guide strands, Douglas added, are then removed to "arm" the nanorobot before it is used to target cells.

In lab tests, Douglas and Bachelet’s prototype successfully tracked down and destroyed lymphoma and leukemia cells in a sample in a petri dish. The caveat: several trillion copies of the nanorobot would be required to perform this type of treatment in an animal subject.

But these trials could mark the beginning of a new era in cancer treatment. By using DNA to make nanorobots that mimic the human immune system, destroying the cancer cells from within could one day present a safer, more efficient alternative to chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering focuses on using bio-inspired materials to emulate patterns and properties in nature. Also involved in the project was Harvard genetics professor George Church, who helped launch the Human Genome Project.

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